Reviews by Cloggie Downunder

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This Must Be the Place: A novel
by Maggie O'Farrell
an unadulterated pleasure to read. (10/10/2016)
“She wasn’t going to look at him again, no, she wasn’t….. Then she did look and the same sensations hit again, like a row of dominoes toppling into each other: the towering sense of recognition, the disbelief that she doesn’t somehow know him, the ridiculousness that they do not know each other, the impossibility of them not seeing each other again”

This Must Be The Place is the seventh novel by British author, Maggie O’Farrell. Claudette Wells is Daniel Sullivan’s second wife. Even after several years of living together in a remote corner of Donegal, and fathering two children with her, he still finds it hard to believe that this eccentric, occasionally crazy, reclusive and beautiful ex-film star ever agreed to marry him. Later, he will remember this, and wonder what possessed him to put all that at risk. But now, a chance snippet of a radio broadcast, heard on the way to the train, sets him on a path to his past.

Daniel heads off to New York, to his (not at all beloved) father’s 90th birthday party, makes an unplanned detour to California see the son and daughter from whom he has been kept for nine years by a vindictive ex-wife, then detours again to Sussex. What he learns there has such a profound effect on him, it threatens to derail the best thing in his life.

O’Farrell has done it again! This extended family, this cast of characters, they pull the reader in. She draws each of them so well, with all their flaws and foibles, that the reader cannot help but find them appealing, hoping that things will turn out okay for them, laughing with them when they do and shedding a tear or two when they don’t.

The story is told by many different characters: the perspective of some is given numerous times; others share their perceptions only once; conveniently, each chapter is clearly marked with the character and the time period; as well as contributing to the main story, these alternate views give vignettes of other, associated lives; most are conventional first-person or third-person narratives, but there is a second-person one, one with footnotes, a transcript of an interview, and even an auction catalogue with images; the chapter headings are phrases lifted from the text therein, producing a tiny resonance when they are read in context.

O’Farrell’s descriptive prose is wonderfully evocative: “An amount of time later – he isn’t sure exactly how much – Daniel is walking in through the gates of the cemetery. He comes here at least once a day. It gives him an aim, a kind of routine. He makes his way along the gravelled path, letting his eye rest on the hundreds and hundreds of gravestones, watching the way they pull themselves into diagonal columns as he passes, then unpeel themselves, then line up again. An endless process of arrangement and disarrangement” is one example.

“He thinks of his grief over his sister as an entity that is horribly and painfully attached to him, the way a jellyfish might adhere to your skin or a goitre or an abscess. He pictures it as viscid, amorphous, spiked, hideous to behold. He finds it unbelievable that no one else can see it. Don’t mind that, he would say, it’s just my grief. Please ignore it and carry on with what you were saying” is another example.

Fans of O’Farrell’s earlier novels will not be disappointed. Readers new to her work are sure to seek out her backlist. Yet another O’Farrell novel that is an unadulterated pleasure to read.
Dear Mr. M
by Herman Koch
A brilliant read! (9/25/2016)
“It’s not something that can simply be turned on and off, this constant observing of superabundant detail; he is a writer, he tells himself, but the vacuuming up of details is purely obsessive. Often, after a day in the city, or a meal in a crowded restaurant, he comes home exhausted by all those faces and their irregularities.”

Dear Mr M is the eighth novel by Dutch actor, television and radio producer, newspaper columnist and author, Herman Koch, and the third to be translated into English. “Dear Mr M” is the salutation that begins a long letter to the ageing and formerly best-selling author who has moved into a flat in Amsterdam, from the younger man who lives in the flat below. Mr M’s bestseller was a thriller about a high school history teacher who was murdered by two of his students after having an affair with one of them. It was based on actual events that occurred at Terhofstede in late December some forty years previous.

In real life, police never recovered the teacher’s body, the teenagers protested their innocence, and much of actually happened was unknown. M did what authors do best, and filled in the gaps with his imagination. But it seems the man writing to M knows the story much more intimately: wouldn’t M like to know what really happened?

The story is split between the present day and that eventful year forty years ago The first person narrative by Mr M’s downstairs neighbour is supplemented by third person narratives from the perspective of Mr M, his young wife, one of the students involved and the teacher. Koch’s characters are multi-faceted: few are quite what they first appear to be, none is entirely blameless and all possess some very human flaws.

Koch gives the reader highly original plot with plenty of twists, back-flips, red herrings and a conclusion that will leave the reader gasping; he manages to include a fist fight, book signings, a bit of stalking, and the making of home movies. There is quite a bit of satire, some irony and plenty of humour, some of which is rather black, some tongue-in-cheek, starting with the disclaimer: "Anyone who thinks he recognises himself or others in one or more characters in this book is probably right. Amsterdam is a real city in the Netherlands"

This novel is cleverly crafted to keep the reader constantly wondering about the truth; this keeps the pages turning as the facts about what happened at Terhofstede, and what led up to it, are gradually revealed. Koch’s commentary on authors, both best-selling and mediocre, on publishers, on librarians, on interviews and author events, is accorded authenticity from his obvious personal experience. Flawlessly translated from the original Dutch by Sam Garrett, this novel is Koch’s best yet. A brilliant read!
Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End
by Atul Gawande
Recommended (9/21/2016)
Being Mortal is the fourth book by American surgeon and author, Atul Gawande. Early on in his book, he tells us :“…the purpose of medical schooling was to teach how to save lives, not how to tend to their demise” and that “I knew theoretically that my patients could die, of course, but every actual instance seemed like a violation, as if the rules I thought we were playing by were broken. I don’t know what game I thought this was, but in it we always won”.

But don’t get the wrong idea: this is not a book about dying, so much, as a book that looks at how the latter hours, days, weeks, months or even years of life can be improved. As we get older, and usually frailer (because there is no “…automatic defrailer…” p44 available to us), we need to rethink where the emphasis should lie: “…our most cruel failure in how we treat the sick and the aged is the failure to recognise that they have priorities beyond merely being safe and living longer…”

“We end up with institutions that address any number of societal goals – from freeing up hospital beds to taking burdens off families’ hands to coping with poverty among the elderly – but never the goal that matters to the people who reside in them: how to make life worth living when we’re weak and frail and can’t fend for ourselves”. Gawande’s wife’s grandmother, when institutionalised, remarked: “She felt incarcerated, like she was in prison for being old”

Gawande backs up his ideas with plenty of data that is both fascinating and revealing. And while an information dump could be boring, he illustrates all this with the results of studies and anecdotes about real people. It doesn’t get much more personal than the experience of his own father’s decline.

“Our responsibility, in medicine, is to deal with human beings as they are. People die only once. They have no experience to draw on. They need doctors and nurses who are willing to have the hard discussions and say what they have seen, who will help people prepare for what is to come…”

While many practitioners of palliative care will be familiar with what Gawande says, this book should be compulsory reading for most health care professionals. Oncologists, gerontologists, surgeons and intensivists (and their patients!) in particular would benefit from reading this book from cover to cover; those of us with ageing or debilitated family members, or those wanting to plan for their own eventual decline, would also find this book interesting and useful.

He concludes: “We’ve been wrong about what our job is in medicine. We think our job is to ensure health and survival. But really it is larger than that. It is to enable well-being. And well-being is about the reasons one wishes to be alive. Those reasons matter not just at the end of life, or when debility comes, but all along the way. Whenever serious sickness or injury strikes and your body or mind breaks down, the vital questions are the same: What is your understanding of the situation and its potential outcomes? What are your fears and what are your hopes? What are the trade-offs you are willing to make and not willing to make? And what is the course of action that best serves this understanding?” Recommended.
by Thomas Mullen
Gritty and informative, this is a brilliant historical page-turner (9/20/2016)
“There was a lot that Rake was learning about his new occupation. He had survived against steep odds for years in Europe as an advance scout, had been alone for long stretches and had wisely figured the difference between threats and opportunities, collaborators and spies. Back home in Atlanta, however, he was finding the moral territory more difficult to chart than he’d expected”

Darktown is the fourth novel by American author, Thomas Mullen. In 1948, with a Negro population probably in excess of 115,000, Atlanta, Georgia had eight Negro police officers. Their powers of arrest were markedly fewer than those of white police officers, they were not issued with patrol cars, and they were quartered in the basement of a YMCA building. These startling facts underpin Thomas Mullen’s story of the murder of a young black woman and the black officers determined to find her killer.

Negro Officer Lucius Boggs is with his partner, Negro Officer Thomas Smith when they witness a Buick driven by a white man in knock over a light pole. They note a black female passenger, and give chase on foot when the driver leaves the scene. They observe him hitting her before she escapes from the car. Days later, they find her body in a pile of refuse. Boggs is no detective: his duties consist of walking his beat; but he is determined that her death will not go unpunished.

There is no love lost between the white officers and the Negro officers: it doesn’t help that the black cops have to call in white cops to make white arrests. When Boggs and Smith call for assistance in the traffic case, Dunlow and Rakestraw’s cruiser is slow to appear. Dunlow, old school and patently racist, ignores Boggs and Smith, and lets the driver off lightly; his rookie partner is more inclined to value their input.

Mullen follows known facts about the first Atlanta eight fairly closely in his tale, and the mention of actual historical figures gives the story authenticity. Each narrative, be it from the perspective of a fearful black sharecropper, an ageing white racist cop, a six-year-old negro boy, a white rookie, a back madam or a rookie negro police officer, has a genuine feel. He conveys the Atlanta of the immediate pre-civil rights era with consummate ease.

The characters are realistic: none of these black policemen is entirely blameless; even the most racist white officers have some virtues. The plot is wholly believable: there are a few twists, but there is no Hollywood ending here, and it is evident in the closing pages that Atlanta still has a long way to go. But Hollywood is apparently interested in turning Mullen’s book into a TV series, and it will certainly translate well. Gritty and informative, this is a brilliant historical page-turner.
The Rosie Effect
by Graeme Simsion
A funny, moving and sometimes thought-provoking read. (9/14/2016)
The Rosie Effect is the second novel by Australian author and playwright, Graeme Simsion, and the sequel to his highly popular novel, The Rosie Project. Now married, Don and Rosie are living in a cramped New York apartment while, as a visiting professor at Columbia, Don continues his research on alcoholic mice and Rosie studies to gain her MD qualification. Don’s friend, Gene, a geneticist and serial adulterer, has finally exhausted his wife’s tolerance for philandering and been thrown out, so Don invites him to stay with them, unwisely neglecting to check with Rosie first. And before he gets a chance to do so, Rosie announces that they are having a baby.

Don’s solution to multiple problems (accommodation deficit with respect to the imminent arrival of an overseas guest and an eventual addition to the family; a laundry confrontation with a neighbour; a twice-daily beer-related commitment; financial stress due to the (Don-induced) loss of employment at a cocktail bar; the need to keep Rosie’s stress levels at a minimum) is a wonderfully elegant example of lateral thinking that only someone of his extraordinary talents could manage.
Gene’s advice on fatherhood is mostly sound, but unfortunately rather too vague for Don, who manages to get himself into trouble involving police, counsellors and support groups.

Mindful of the results of Rosie’s own research into the effects of stress during pregnancy, Don wants to spare her any anxiety and eventually tangles himself (and several others) in a web of deceit. His eccentric manner of dealing with Rosie’s pregnancy and his own impending fatherhood ends up threatening their happiness together. Luckily, he has friends (six, now!) who care and his boy’s night out group (recently expanded to include a rock star, and a psychology professor in addition to a refrigeration engineer) provide unique support.

In Don, Simsion has created a character who is easy to love: he cares about his friends, is completely guileless, somewhat innocent and totally without malice. He has wholehearted enthusiasm for, and dedication to, any project he decides to take on. Simsion introduces a few new characters and expands on characters that readers will remember from The Rosie Project, so there are a few sub-plots keeping Don busy. This novel is filled with an abundance of hilarious situations that will have the reader snickering, groaning and laughing out loud as Don navigates his way through dinners (the Bluefin Tuna Incident), toddler observation (the Playground Incident), counselling sessions (the Good Fathers Project), research projects (the Lesbian Mothers Project), errors in judgement (the Second Ultrasound Misunderstanding), encounters with Loud Woman, Bubonic Plague Woman and an opinionated social worker, and tries to reinstate the Standardised Meal System (pregnancy version).

Don’s instinctive solution to any problem is a spreadsheet, and his Baby Project bathroom-tile spreadsheet sounds fascinating. Ditto Jim’s soundproof crib. There are Gregory Peck impersonations, Rosie impersonations, men sharing their deepest secrets, a perfect anniversary celebration engineered for Don by Rosie, and, of course, bouts of morning sickness which elicit Don’s logical (if unsympathetic-sounding) response: “Feeling unwell is normal in pregnancy. It’s almost certainly a good sign.…..Your body is probably assembling some critical component, such as an arm, and is minimising the possibility of toxins disrupting the process.”

Simsion’s latest novel takes a light-hearted look at medical research projects, sustainable meal choices, social workers, pregnancy and of course, fatherhood. Apart from the many laughs, there are also a few lump-in-the-throat moments and readers who loved The Rosie Project will not be disappointed. A funny, moving and sometimes thought-provoking read.
Cat Out of Hell
by Lynne Truss
highly entertaining (9/5/2016)
Cat Out Of Hell is a novel by British writer and journalist, Lynne Truss. When Alec Charlesworth’s beloved wife, Mary dies, he heads to a cottage on the coast of North Norfolk with their dog, Watson, to grieve privately. Isolation is what he craves, but, finding he needs some mental stimulation, turns on his laptop to read an email from a library colleague of Mary’s. It contains several files concerning a cat called Roger, and by the end of his perusal, Alec is confused, sceptical and rather irritated.

Back home, a visit to Mary’s library has Alec wondering if there might be some truth to the files; when the sender of said files pays him a visit, he begins to doubt that the cause of Mary’s death was natural. Soon he is deeply involved in an escapade that features several murders, hidden books, library theft, emergency hospital visits, talking cats (and dogs?), and even Beelzebub himself.

Truss uses a format of straight narrative combined with emails, transcripts of recorded conversations, screenplays, descriptions of photographs, telepathic messages and even questionnaires. It helps to pay attention to the early chapter headings, as these form part of a later chapter. The tone of the whole tale is very much tongue in cheek and the result is quite hilarious in places. Some horror, plenty of humour, highly entertaining. 4.5 stars
Vinegar Girl: Hogarth Shakespeare Series
by Anne Tyler
Witty and funny (8/14/2016)
“She had always been such a handful – a thorny child, a sullen teenager, a failure as a college student. What was to be done with her? But now they had the answer: marry her off. They would never give her another moment’s thought”

Vinegar Girl is the twenty-first novel by American author, Anne Tyler, and is written under the Hogarth Shakespeare banner. It is billed as William Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew retold. At twenty-nine, Kate Battista is in a dead-end job she doesn’t particularly like, and saddled with looking after her air-head fifteen-year-old sister and her workaholic father. Kate is no shrinking violet though: she lets them know what irritates her in no uncertain terms. Her boss suggests she practice restraint but: “The unsatisfying thing about practicing restraint was that nobody knew you were practicing it”

So when Dr Louis Battista suggests she marry Pyotr Shcherbakov, his brilliant research assistant, whose O-1 visa is about to run out, she lets her father know how she feels: “We are not in another culture, and this is not an arranged marriage. This is human trafficking….You’re sending me to live with a stranger, sleep with a stranger, just for your own personal gain”

Pyotr tries to court Kate, despite her irritability, her rudeness and her flat refusal to help. And despite the gross insult she perceives at the suggestion, his enthusiasm, his lack of guile and his straight talking begins to weaken her resolve “…they say you can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar” she tells him. “Yes, they would,” Pyotr said, mysteriously. “But why would you want to catch flies, hah? Answer me that, vinegar girl”

Anne Tyler’s version of this classic Shakespeare tale is an absolute delight. Her characters are ordinary people with flaws and believable quirks; their dialogue is just as ordinary and everyday; and yet, they are endearing, each in their own way. Her descriptive prose is marvellous: “an unhealthy-looking young man with patchy beige chin whiskers that reminded Kate of lichen”. And the tale is filled with humour: the reader will find themselves smiling, chuckling and (at least at the wedding ceremony) laughing out loud. Witty and funny.
Carrying Albert Home: The Somewhat True Story of A Man, His Wife, and Her Alligator
by Homer Hickam
Funny and moving, this is a very enjoyable read. (8/8/2016)
“Elsie had always felt her life was like a jigsaw puzzle with no picture on the box to show her how the puzzle pieces should fit together”

Carrying Albert Home: The Somewhat True Story of A Man, His Wife, and Her Alligator is a book with a title that is certainly lengthy-yet-succinct and quite intriguing. This memoir by American author, Homer H. Hickam Jr. is his account of his parents, Elsie and Homer’s epic adventure with an alligator named Albert (and a rooster), in which (Hickam’s website tells us) everything is true, except the bits that are made up. Which is no doubt why the cover says “a novel”. Some say it could be considered a prequel to his Coalwood series.

An embarrassing incident with Albert leads Homer to issue Elsie with an ultimatum, "Me…or…that…alligator”. The decision is made to carry Albert home from Coalwood, West Virginia to Orlando, Florida. Albert travels in a quilt-lined bathtub on the back seat of Homer’s Buick. For no apparent reason, a russet-coloured rooster with green tail feathers decides, at the last minute, to join them. Homer takes two weeks’ leave from the mine, expecting to be back in Coalwood by then. But the trip does not go according to Homer’s plan.

When they finally reach Florida, they encounter Elsie’s former beau, singer and dancer, Buddy Ebsen, the man who was responsible for sending them the hatchling Albert as a wedding gift. Buddy apologises if Albert caused them any trouble. Homer, by this stage is quite angry: “Oh, no trouble at all. Your marvellous gift merely made us abandon our house, get caught up in a bank robbery, run illegal moonshine through North Carolina, get cast adrift in the Atlantic Ocean, act in a jungle movie, and get all but blown away in the Keys! No, sir. No trouble at all”. Their adventure has also included joining a bunch of radicals, flying a plane and meeting John Steinbeck and Ernest Hemingway.

Underlying the crazy adventure with all its quirky characters is the love story between Elsie and Homer, which hits a few rough patches before a relatively happy ending. But the real star of the story is, of course, Albert (although the rooster does have a certain appeal). Funny and moving, this is a very enjoyable read.
by Diana Gabaldon
Addictive (7/13/2016)
Outlander (also titled Cross Stitch) is the first book in the Outlander series by American author, Diana Gabaldon. Claire Beauchamp Randall, ex-army nurse, is on vacation in Scotland with her husband Frank, a historian. It’s 1946, and they are combining Frank’s quest for more information about his ancestors with the opportunity to reconnect after six years of wartime apart. Jonathan “Black Jack” Randall was apparently active in the area, back in the eighteenth century.

A visit to the Standing Stones at Craigh na Dun goes awry when Claire suddenly finds herself at the edges of a battle between the English garrison and the Highlanders. It becomes apparent that this is no longer 1946. And while the garrison commander looks like Frank, and claims to be Jonathan Randall, his behaviour soon has her grateful for her rescue by a Highlander. Her nursing skills bring her in close contact with an injured Scottish outlaw, Jamie Fraser.

Despite wanting desperately to get back to Frank in 1946, after four months, Claire is astounded to be married to Jamie, hunted by Randall and living in the primitive conditions of the eighteenth century. Even more surprisingly, she realises she is happy. But it is 1743, and Claire knows that the dramatic events of Culloden are not far off.

Gabaldon gives the reader a tale that is part romance, part adventure, part historical and part sci-fi. She manages to include a Highland Gathering, plenty of fights and battles, torture, flogging, imprisonment, a wedding, a childbirth, a reunion, a channel crossing, a very novel prison escape, an opium-fuelled mental healing, a witch trial, quite a bit of sex and perhaps even a touch of magic. Despite the 800 pages that contain a wealth of information about the Scottish Highlands in the eighteenth century, the characters and the plot are so compelling that this page-turner that will have readers seeking out the second volume in the series, Dragonfly in Amber. Addictive.
The Bones of Grace
by Tahmima Anam
A brilliant read. (7/4/2016)
“You realise, don’t you, Elijah, that this is the way you worked your way into my heart? Not just in those days together in Cambridge, but in the aftermath, when I couldn’t stop talking about you, when every turn of my story included a footnote of conversation as I pictured how you might respond, the way the desert light would catch your hair, the effect of the parched, history-heavy air on your voice. What would you have made of all this, the green flags of our tents on the lunar surface of this ancient place, our little argument with time”

The Bones of Grace is the final book in the loosely connected Bengal trilogy by British Bangladeshi writer, novelist and columnist, Tahmima Anam. Zubaida Haque is writing to the man she fell in love with one Cambridge afternoon at a Shostakovich Preludes concert. Elijah Strong is not the man she married, but Zubaida is writing to explain what led to her the actions that she knows broke his heart.

The story she tells, parts of which he of course knows well, details their first meeting, just days before she departed for an archaeological dig in Pakistan. As a palaeontologist, Zubaida has been selected to help unearth the bones of the “walking whale”, Ambulocetus, near a remote village. But events conspire to put her back in her hometown, Dhaka, much sooner than expected, and she finds the pressure to enter into the expected marriage, too much to resist.

Anam’s extensive research into many topics is apparent on every page and she manages to include a myriad of interesting subjects in her narrative: as well as the evolution of the whale and archaeology digs, she explores the industry of ship-breaking, the plight of ex-pat construction workers in Dubai, undocumented adoption and the search for a birth mother, and for a long-lost lover. She weaves a wealth of curious facts into a plot that itself is mesmerising, and does so with some gorgeous descriptive prose.

“The light came in as we waited, and then there it was, a sliver on the horizon. We watched as it grew. More of the men arrived, wiping the sleep from their eyes. The curve of the ship began to appear, and now we could see the gleam of the hull, a poem of curves rising out of the remnants of dark, and suddenly it was before us, as if it had turned a sharp corner, white, immense, violent” and “She is a person with guilt at the very core of her being, and she spends her days compensating others for the fortune that brought her a life, a marriage, me. She is a moral economy all to herself, painted in tiny strokes of the past” are examples.

Anam’s characters are multifaceted, all have flaws, and the reader cannot help but care about their fate. While this novel is part of a trilogy, it can easily be read as a stand-alone, but readers are likely to want to seek out the earlier books by this talented author. A brilliant read.
The Grim Grotto
by Lemony Snicket
fun read (6/26/2016)
The Grim Grotto is the eleventh book in A Series of Unfortunate Events by American author, Lemony Snicket (aka Daniel Handler). As we once again join the unlucky Baudelaire orphans, they find themselves sailing down the Stricken Stream on a toboggan towards the ocean. Is it coincidence that they are rescued by a submarine whose crew (Captain Widdershins and Fiona) are on a mission to find a certain important sugar bowl, one the Baudelaire orphans also seek?

Having narrowly escaped a burning hospital and already suffered the loss of their parents, the threat of marriage, slave labour, hypnosis, a terrible boarding school, being thrown down a lift shaft, being thrown in jail, acting in a freak show, being thrown off a mountain and the murder of their Uncle Monty and Aunt Josephine at the hands of the evil Count Olaf and his nefarious assistants, the siblings are ever-vigilant of his reappearance. Luckily these well-mannered and uncomplaining children are also very resourceful: Violet invents, Klaus researches and Sunny cooks.

Snicket’s tone throughout is apologetic, sincere and matter-of-fact as he relates the unfortunate events in the children’s lives; his imaginative and even surreptitiously educational style will hold much appeal for younger readers, as will the persistent silliness of adults. Snicket’s word and phrase definitions are often hilarious. As always, the alliterative titles are delightful and Brett Helquist provides some wonderfully evocative illustrations.

This instalment sees the Baudelaires donning undersea suits, doing their best to avoid a deadly fungus, being captured (again!) by Count Olaf, repairing a porthole, and finally washing up on the Briny Beach, the place where the whole unfortunate tale began. Will they be in time to stop Olaf from destroying the Hotel Denouement? Perhaps the Penultimate Peril will have the answer.
Get in Trouble: Stories
by Kelly Link
plenty of dark humour (6/26/2016)
Get in Trouble is a collection of nine short stories by American author, Kelly Link. Each of the stories has been previously published in other publications from as early as 2006. The stories are varied in both format and subject matter, although each one seems to feature some element of alternate reality and have a highly original plot with a twist or two to keep it interesting. There are Summer Visitors of quite a different kind, internet gaming worlds, an internet date that goes wrong in an unpredictable manner, an unusual theme park, a pair of nervous expectant gay fathers, bizarre teen toys, weird pocket universes and an attempted suicide with a potato peeler.

In these very different stories, Link manages to somehow logically combine: butter sculptures, dentists and superheroes; a surrogate mother, a gay couple, a bunch of left-over wedding dresses and a premmy baby; space ships, haunted houses and ghost stories; a jealous teenager, an antique locket and a ghost toy; pyramids, an asp and a pair of spoiled rich siblings; double shadows, twins, mermaids, iguanas and a hurricane; a Land of Oz theme park, superpowers and a childhood friend; a demon lover, an actress and a ghost.

There is plenty of dark humour in these tales; they are imaginative, sexy, often fantastic and great fun to read. Fans of Kelly Link’s work will not be disappointed with this latest collection.
We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves
by Karen Joy Fowler
A clever, moving and thought-provoking read. (6/11/2016)
“You learn as much from failure as from success, Dad always says. Though no one admires you for it”

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is the eighth novel by prize-winning American author, Karen Joy Fowler. Rosemary Cooke’s sister Fern disappeared from her life when she was just five years old. When she was nearly twelve, her brother Lowell left. The absence of her two beloved siblings was never discussed at home.

From the perspective of a kindergarten teacher in her late thirties, Rosie tells the story of her unusual upbringing. She starts in the middle, during her time at UC Davis, because she had been told, often enough, by her psychologist father: “Skip the beginning; start in the middle”.

By this time, the once loquacious girl was almost taciturn. Throughout her childhood, members of her family advised “If you have three things to say, just tell the most important one”. Even more effective at reducing her chat was her brother’s later remonstration “If only you had, just for once, kept your goddamn mouth shut!” She still “thought as much as ever… Without the release of talking, these thoughts crowded my brain. The inside of my head turned clamorous and outlandish, like the Mos Eisley spaceport bar in Star Wars”

In the telling of the how and why her siblings are absent, Rosie delves into psychology experiments and primates and the unreliability of memories. And while a psychologist practicing on his family is probably de rigeur, today’s ethics committees would surely have vetoed what took place during Rosie’s childhood.

While the theme of love, of loss, and cruelty gives the story an undercurrent of sadness, Fowler includes plenty of humour, some of it quite black. She gives the reader a collection of quirky characters; her descriptions of faculty life in an Indiana college town in the late seventies and a Californian University town in the mid-nineties has a very genuine feel, no doubt as they draw on her own life experiences. Lost luggage, a French Revolution puppet and animal liberationists all feature. A clever, moving and thought-provoking read. 4.5 stars
Britt-Marie Was Here
by Fredrik Backman
a delight to read (5/16/2016)
“’Welcome to Borg’, Britt-Marie reads, while she sits on a stool in the darkness and looks at the red dot that first made her fall in love with the picture. The reason for her love of maps. It’s half worn away, the dot, and the red colour is bleached. Yet it’s there, flung down there on the map halfway between the lower left corner and its centre, and next to it is written, ‘You are here’. Sometimes it’s easier to go on living, not even knowing who you are, when at least you know precisely where you are while you go on not knowing.”

Britt-Marie Was Here is the third novel by Swedish blogger, columnist and author, Fredrik Backman, and is flawlessly translated from Swedish by Henning Koch. Britt-Marie, now sixty-three, will be remembered as a pedantic, officious, overbearing secondary character from Backman’s second novel, My Grandmother Sends Her Regards and Apologises. She has had to face some unpleasant facts about her husband, Kent, and presents herself (for quite an unusual reason) at the unemployment office, seeking a job.

Britt-Marie is sent to Borg, a remote town in the process of shutting down, where she is to act as temporary caretaker at the Recreation Centre. Britt-Marie arrives alone, but finds herself forced to interact with the (not-altogether-welcoming) townspeople, many of whom she is eventually proud to call friends. She finds herself somehow appointed trainer/coach of a group of muddy children who play football in the car park, including a sassy girl and her entrepreneurial younger brother, a boy who admires Britt-Marie’s hairdo, another who can almost kick goals and a young Somalian.

Somebody who “…has one of the worst hairstyles Britt-Marie has ever laid eyes on, as if she’s combed her hair with a terrified animal”, runs the Borg Pizzeria which also serves as a Post office, grocery store, off-licence, car repair and health centre; cranky Karl visits to collect parcels; a pair of grumpy, bearded men spend days there drinking coffee; Sven, the multi-talented (by virtue of courses completed) cop keeps an eye on things; Bank, of generous body and impaired vision, apparently has a room available; Fredrik turns up regularly (with son Max) to flaunt his big BMW; and a certain Snickers-loving rodent also plays a role.

Britt-Marie has firm beliefs on many topics: how the cutlery drawer should be arranged; why dead bodies start to smell; writing lists in pencil; keeping appointments; the importance of a quality window cleaner; the power of bicarbonate of soda; and the correct time for dinner (6pm sharp!). She may be faced with uncooperative bureaucrats, football-obsessed children and rude townspeople, but Britt-Marie is a force to be reckoned with. And “She may not know a lot about football, but even the gods know that no one is more skilled at lists than Britt-Marie”.

Backman once again combines an abundance humour with heartache and plenty of words of wisdom as he touches on a variety of topics: loneliness, loyalty, the need to feel useful, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, the superstitions of football fans, infidelity, guilt, grief, pride, insecurity, and community spirit. His quirky characters and the charming logic of the children make this moving and uplifting novel a delight to read, and fans of his earlier books will not be disappointed.
The Last Painting of Sara de Vos: A Novel
by Dominic Smith
a very readable tale (4/20/2016)
‘The cold air burns her cheeks as she skates along, pushing into long glides, her hands behind her back, the sound of her skate blades like the sharpening of a knife on whetstone. She wants to skate for miles, to fall until midnight into thi bracing pleasure. The bare trees glitter with ice along the riverbank, a complement to the winking stars. The night feels unpeeled, as if she’s burrowed into its flesh. Here is the bone and armature, the trees holding up the sky like the ribs of a ship, the ice hardening the river into a mirror too dull to see the sky’s full reflection… there are pockets of time, she thinks, where every sense rings like a bell, where the world brims with fleeting grace”

The Last Painting of Sara de Vos is the fourth novel by prize-winning Australian-born author, Dominic Smith. “At the Edge of a Wood”: a haunting and evocative landscape from the Dutch Golden Age, painted by the first woman to be admitted to the Haarlem Guild of St Luke, Sara de Vos, and believed to be her last known work.

It had been in Marty de Groot’s family for over three hundred years when it was stolen from his Manhattan bedroom. It was replaced with a forgery that was so skilfully executed, it was six months before he even noticed. Police and insurance agents made no headway, but finally a privately-engaged investigator tracked down the artist.

Marty intends to confront the forger, a young Australian woman named Eleanor Shipley, who consults in art restoration and conservation, while completing her dissertation on Dutch women painters of the Golden Age for her art history Ph.D. at Columbia. But his meeting with Ellie does not go quite as he had intended.

Smith uses three separate timelines to follow the progress and fates the painting, and those people in whose lives it plays a significant role: the mid-17th Century introduces Sara de Vos and details the circumstances under which her artwork was created; the late-1950s describes the production of the forgery and the aftermath of its discovery; the year 2000 tells of the effects of the threatened exposure of the fake on a hard-won reputation.

Smith’s plot is original and his inclusion of a wealth of information on 17th Century Dutch art, on the restoration and preservation of artworks and on the making of forgeries gives it a genuine feel. His characters are multi-faceted and interesting, some genuine, some misrepresenting who they are and what they know. How lives are affected by secrets kept, by regret and by guilt over past actions is a major element of this story.

Smith treats the reader to some marvellous descriptive prose: “…it strikes her that she has never painted exactly what she sees. Surely, this is the way of all art. The painter sees the world as if through the watery lens of a pond. Certain things ripple and distort while others are magnified and strangely clear” and “You live among the ruins of the past, carry them in your pockets, wishing you’d been decent and loving and talented and brave. Instead you were vain and selfish, capable of love but always giving less than everything you had” are examples.

Also: “The truer statement was that she’d used the de Vos canvas as a testing ground for her own thwarted talents, that she was reckless and lonely and angry with the world, that she craved a kind of communion, to find a layer beneath the glazes and scumbles and lead white where Sara herself still trudged through the fog of antique varnish, wracked by grief but somehow dispensing painterly wisdom.”

Smith easily conveys the 17th Century, including many interesting details about everyday life and the world of the Golden Age artist in the Netherlands; his portrayal Sydney during the Millennium is equally effective; his rendering of the late-1950s is less convincing. His blend of fiction with historical fact makes for a very readable tale.

4.5 stars
Amnesia: A novel
by Peter Carey
an enjoyable read (4/16/2016)
Amnesia is the fourteenth novel by award-winning Australian novelist, Peter Carey. The Angel Worm: a virus that proves to be a security nightmare when it opens prisons around Australia. And worse still, infects the big parent security firm in the United States, attracting the ire of the CIA and other security entities. When the hacker is discovered to be a young Melbourne woman, journalist Felix Moore is surprised to find himself involved.

Actress Celine Baillieux is desperate to prevent her daughter, Gaby’s extradition to the United States for unleashing said virus, and calls on her old Uni mate to write a biography that will exonerate this feisty young woman. Property developer, Woody Townes, the man who has extracted Felix from many a dire situation, is enlisted to facilitate matters.

But is Felix, “the most controversial journalist of his age”, known for ruining reputations and manufacturing quotes (“He freely admitted that he not only made up quotes but had also been accused of making up quotes, ‘but never the quotes I actually made up.’”) the right person for the job? It seems Felix has a fixation on the role of the United States in Australia’s politics: the “Battle of Brisbane” and the 1975 Dismissal feature prominently in the tale he constructs.

Carey gathers together a diverse cast of characters, people the reader will recognise from everyday life: the Local Member intent of preserving image; the ageing actress isolated from her theatre milieu in a working-class suburb; the highly intelligent students able to run rings around security to further their cause; the property developer with a finger in many pies; petty crooks trying to make it big; and greenies determined to expose corporate cover-ups.

Carey gives the reader plenty of humour, both in the dialogue between the characters and in the predicaments in which he places his protagonist. Felix is charmed, spoiled, kidnapped, isolated, forced to live rough and made to produce his manuscript with technology that is virtually obsolete (cassette tapes, paper and a typewriter, no less!). The back-cover blurb is quite misleading, as the story goes in a completely different direction. The pace could perhaps have been faster: occasionally, the story seemed to lose momentum. Nonetheless, an enjoyable read.
The Argonauts
by Maggie Nelson
An unusual memoir. (4/9/2016)
“In Opie’s nursing self-portrait, she holds and beholds her son Oliver while he nurses, her Pervert scar still visible, albeit ghosted, across her chest. The ghosted scar offers a rebus of sodomitical maternity: the pervert need not die or even go into hiding per se, but nor is adult sexuality foisted upon the child, made its burden”

The Argonauts is the ninth book by American poet, art critic, lyric essayist and nonfiction author, Maggie Nelson. Described as a memoir, it is more of an opinion piece on LGBTQ issues, in particular, transgender and queer. It is told in the first person by Nelson, and addressed to her (fluidly-gendered) “husband”, artist, performer and writer Harry Dodge.

Nelson touches on a myriad of topics: gender and identity, motherhood, transgender, queer families, same-sex marriage, writing and death. The opinion pieces contain occasional gems of wisdom, but soon become somewhat preachy, tedious, and boring. Many of the people described have the luxury of indulging in first-world angst, so perhaps this is the intended reader base for this book.

Sometimes the writing is not easily accessible: the concepts are so abstract and high-brow, the sentences so convoluted as to need rereading multiple times; no reader enjoys being made to feel stupid or ignorant. Nelson assumes in the reader familiarity with certain linguists, philosophers, writers, artists, poets, psychoanalysts, and unquestionably a basic knowledge of their works, ideas and concepts would increase the appeal of the book. When she quotes the work of others, her reference appears as a name printed in the margin of the text.

What redeems this work from a lower rating is that Nelson (and sometimes Harry) shares important parts of their lives: their relationship as lovers and their wedding, Harry’s steps towards transgender, Nelson’s relationship with her stepson, Nelson’s stalker, their journey toward parenthood and the birth of their son, Iggy. Harry’s account of his mother’s passing is quite moving.

Nelson has won the 2015 New York Times Notable Book and the 2016 National Book Critics Circle Award (Criticism) for The Argonauts. An unusual memoir.
The Secret History
by Donna Tartt
a compelling read (4/3/2016)
“…people never seemed to notice at first how big Henry was. Maybe it was because of his clothes, which were like one of those lame but curiously impenetrable disguises from a comic book (why does no one ever see that ‘bookish’ Clark Kent, without his glasses, is Superman?). Or maybe it was a question of his making people see. He had the far more remarkable talent of making himself invisible – in a room, in a car, a virtual ability to dematerialise at will – and perhaps this gift was only the converse of that one: the sudden concentration of his wandering molecules rendering his shadowy form solid, all at once, a metamorphosis startling the viewer.”

The Secret History is the first novel by American author, Donna Tartt. At the age of nineteen, Richard Papen goes to Hampden College in Vermont, primarily to get away from his parents and his depressingly boring hometown of Plano, CA. Having done two years of study in Ancient Greek, he jumps at the opportunity to join an exclusive class of five students studying The Classics under the very selective Julian Morrow.

Richard is somewhat dazzled by his fellow students: Henry Winter, dark-suited, stiff, aloof and extremely intelligent; Francis Abernathy, angular and elegant; the beautiful twins, Charles and Camilla Macaulay, and Bunny Corcoran, loud and cheery. Never does he dream that within a few months, one of their number will be dead.

At the centre of this book, both figuratively and literally, is a murder. The narrative is split into two: what led up to the murder, and the aftermath. The story is told by Richard some nine years after he went to Vermont. Tartt advances her story at a slow and careful pace; her characters, flawed and not necessarily appealing, develop as Richard gets to know them; her descriptive prose expertly evokes the atmosphere of the New England college.

So naturally do events lead into one another that the reader occasionally needs to step back and think: this is murder they are so matter-of-factly discussing. Black humour relieves the tension: the twins, upbraided for their failure to plan a meal, retort “Well, if you wake up intending to murder someone at two o’clock, you hardly think what you’re going to feed the corpse for dinner”.

As well as giving the reader plenty to think about (the value of life, self-preservation, friendship any loyalty), there is a plot with a few interesting turns and a quite unexpected climax. Tartt combines the story-telling talent of Stephen King with prose worthy of Wallace Stegner: the result is a compelling read that will stay with the reader long after the last page is turned.
Electra: Delphic Women Mystery
by Kerry Greenwood
An interesting read. (3/22/2016)
Electra is the third book in the Delphic Women series by Australian author, Kerry Greenwood. Electra’s father, Agamemnon of the House of Atreus, has been victorious in Troy, and is about to return to Mycenae with a Trojan slave concubine, Cassandra, when she becomes aware of the plot by her mother, Clytemnestra and her mother’s lover, Aegithus, to murder Agamemnon. Despite her privileged and secluded life, she assists Diomenes, an Asclepid healer, and Eumides, a Trojan sailor to enter the quarters to rescue Cassandra.

Having seen Agamemnon slain, Electra must flee, and takes her ten-year-old brother, Orestes with her. She is invited to accompany the trio to Delphi. Meanwhile, Odysseus is still at sea, unable to return to his wife and child in Ithica while Poseidon’s wrath remains. And the Gods argue over the fate of the House of Atreus.

Greenwood tells the story in four narrative strands: Cassandra, Electra and Odysseus each relate events from their perspective, and the deliberations of the Gods are reported from time to time. Greenwood’s extensive research is apparent on every page, but her writing style and attention to detail ensures that what could dry and boring is made absorbing and easy to assimilate.

By infusing the characters with personality and emotion, strengths and weaknesses, and giving them everyday conversation, Greenwood takes Classic Greek mythology and makes it palatable. While this is the final book of a trilogy, it can be read as a stand-alone. An interesting read.
The Versions of Us
by Laura Barnett
a brilliant debut novel (3/6/2016)
“Jim, looking back at his lovely, handsome son….had felt so full of pride and love that for a moment he’d been unable to speak. And so he’d simply slung his arm around Dylan’s shoulders, thinking that he’d never expected things to turn out like this; but then he’d lived long enough to understand the futility of expecting anything at all”

Cambridge, 1958: trying to avoid a small white dog on the path, a young woman swerves her bicycle and ends up with a puncture. A young man notes her plight and offers to help. After some conversation and consideration, they head for his room together to effect the repair. But what if she manages, narrowly, to avoid the dog and the puncture, and curtly dismisses the young man’s concerned "Are you alright there”? Or what if she falls off the bike, twists her ankle, the young man offers to help, and convinces her to skip class and come to the pub? For university students Eva Edelstein and Jim Taylor, three almost identical encounters with three different outcomes.

Where some authors might tentatively explore the “what if” scenario, Barnett executes her exploration with an elegant finesse that belies her status as a first-time author. There are three distinct timelines, each clearly marked, running in parallel throughout the book. In three separate stories, the reader observes Jim and Eva forming relationships (not necessarily with each other) and experiencing the highs and lows of everyday life.

Each chapter updates the reader on their lives at a certain time (alone or together, depending on the version and the narrator), thus covering almost sixty years. In each version there are many common elements: friends, acquaintances and family members are the same, as are mostly their character and personal details; children necessarily differ as they are begotten at different times and to different couples; incidents, anecdotes, certain themes and occasionally whole conversations occur in most or all versions. All of this gives the reader insight into emotions experienced and choices made.

Barnett’s characters are appealing: the reader easily shares their hopes, their joys and sorrows, and is occasionally dismayed by their poor behaviour. The storylines are all wholly believable: events in their lives are what happen to us all. Barnett manages to effortlessly locate her stories in place and time with the seamless inclusion of the topical: news, fashion, music, literature, popular culture.

Barnett’s writing, her themes, her characters and her style are very reminiscent of that of David Nicholls, and perhaps Anne Tyler and Kate Atkinson (Life After Life). While it can be a bit challenging to keep the three versions (with so much in common) distinct while reading, taking notes does help, and the beautiful descriptive prose more than makes up for any inconvenience.
"He stands for a moment before opening the studio door, looking down at the beach, flooded with a disorientating happiness; and he savours it, drinks it in, because he is old enough now to know happiness for what it is: brief and fleeting, not a state to strive for, to seek to live in, but to catch when it comes, and hold on to for as long as you can".

“…Jim doesn’t care: he is thinking only about when he will see Eva again. For all the years he has spent without her are dulling now, losing their shape and colour – as if he were sleepwalking through them, and has only just remembered what it is to be fully awake” are just a few examples of this. This is a brilliant debut, and fans of this style will look for more from Laura Barnett. 4.5 stars.

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